Tuesday, 04 February 2020

Turning Points

One of the most fascinating TV programs of the past decade has to be Henry Louis Gates's "Finding Your Roots." If you haven't seen this PBS special on Tuesday nights, you are really missing something important. As Gates interviews his guests, many of them well known names, the viewer finds a growing understanding of how we are all connected and how important family is, at least equal to genetics, in forming who we are. As guests discover that their ancestors fought in the American Revolution, were slaves, or slave owners, spent time in prison or made important contributions to American society in the fields of business, discovery, education, government and so on, many are profoundly moved by the lives of their newfound ancestors.

The shows inevitably make me think about my own life. I know many stories about my own ancestors, some passed on through my parents, others meticulously investigated by my aunt Virginia who tried valiantly to fill in some of the gaps in the family's history. But the family on my mother's side had Russian roots, and while we know a few interesting stories, she was unable to track down relatives in Russia, even though we knew there had to be scores if not hundreds still living there, particularly in Siberia. One of the most interesting of these stories was about my grandfather. His father, my great grandfather, was accused of murder in Tsarist Russia of the late 1800s. The family was exiled to Siberia where they were not imprisoned but allowed to live their lives as best they could in this remote place. My great grandfather started a business and became quite successful. He was part of a literary group which included Maxim Gorky, the famous Russian and Soviet writer. After about ten years, the man who actually committed the murder my great grandfather had been accused of, confessed. The authorities told my ancestor that he could return, leaving Siberia behind. He refused and spent the rest of his life there. My grandfather was one of a dozen or so children. When he was just sixteen, he traveled alone across all of Russia and Europe and took a ship to America, arriving through Ellis Island to New York in the first decade of the twentieth century. There, he eventually became a dentist and a writer and had a family of his own, which included my mother and her two sisters.

So today, my own son is the fourth generation writer in our family. One has to wonder if this could somehow be something for which we have a genetic component. It was uncertain that I would become a writer until I was about thirty when I began, in somewhat stumbling fashion, to explore the pursuit as a profession. Both my parents were university English professors and so certainly there had to also be an element of family influence involved in my choice. When I came home from school as a child I would find both my parents and my older sister all writing away in their rooms. It took me longer to get to it, but to some extent it seemed preordained. But I always credit my mother with influencing me to become a writer. She had a curious mind and though an English professor, she was also fascinated by the sciences. I also picked up this interest.

Still, deciding what and how to write is always a struggle. It took me many years to work out what I liked best. A turning point for me came not long after I published my first book, which was a compilation of columns and essays I wrote largely for newspapers and magazines. I was also working on picking up a mystery series my mother had begun and had become too ill to continue. I wrote three more in her series. They were never published but formed the basis for my interest in continuing to write. Then, out of the blue, I received calls from two people I had met during my years as something of an activist in the environmental politics of the Adirondack Park in New York State. They asked me if I would consider writing the biography of a very well known Adirondack figure, Clarence Petty.

This was a daunting prospect for me. I knew of Clarence by this time, and he was not just a famous Adirondacker but also a beloved figure in conservation history. I made a couple of visits to his home, trying to get my head around what the task of writing his biography would entail. I liked the man immensely and would over time become a close friend. But I felt I was in over my head. I had been a newspaper columnist and unpublished fiction writer. Writing a biography was a beast of an entirely different nature. Clarence was then in his late eighties and I only gradually began to realize that his ENTIRE life was interesting, from his childhood as a hunting guide in the wilderness to the many different professions he undertook throughout his long life to still, at nearly ninety, the recognized expert on everything Adirondack. I was thoroughly intimidated and hesitated to agree to take on the task. I credit my mother and my wife for pushing me to realize that this might be the most important thing I would do in my life: to chronicle the life of this extraordinary man. The task took up much of the next five years of my life. Most of that time, I felt like I needed to hurry because I wanted to finish the book while Clarence was still alive. In fact, Clarence lived to be 104 and remained sharp as a tack till the end.

By the time I was finished, I realized I really was a writer. But boy, I did not want to take on another book of that type. The years of research, interviews, travel and so forth were exhausting. But I finished the book and it was published. Quite possibly the best thing I have written, though that sense changes with each subsequent book I write. For I returned to fiction and that is what I have concentrated on ever since.

My only point here is that life provides us all with important, sometimes unrecognized, turning points. My decision to take on the life of Clarence Petty was one such point.

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